Luis García Berlanga was a critically acclaimed writer, director, and actor from Spain. Born in 1921, he lived 89 years, leaving this earth 6 years ago. Of his 89 years amongst the living, he was actively involved in the arts and the world of film for 51 of them, beginning at age 30 in 1951 and retiring his craft in 2002, 8 years before his death. His most notable works were 1953’s Welcome Mr. Marshall! (¡Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!) and 1963’s The Executioner (El Verdugo), the latter widely accepted as one of the Spain’s cinematic masterworks.
The Executioner became an official entry in the prized Criterion Collection on October 25th. Prior to their release of the film on both DVD and Blu-ray, the film lacked a proper American release. Criterion corrected this by releasing the film’s “restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray” in a package full of special features and an interesting film essay by film critic David Cairns (known primarily for his well trafficked film blog, Shadowplay, and being a screenwriter, as well as directing a few films himself).
The film itself centers on the relationship between two social pariahs, an undertaker and the daughter of the local executioner. We begin with the woman’s father, the proud and traditional undertaker, nearing his retirement and seeking someone to carry his torch. We soon get to spend some time with the daughter (Emma Penella as Carmen) and the undertaker (Nino Manfredi as José Luis), whom seem to be a perfect match, based on the fact that no one is interested in either of them and they share many commonalities. When José meets Carmen and sees her predicament of being an outcast due to her father’s profession, he sympathizes and so begins the path towards their coming together. They marry and have children, but all is not happily ever after necessarily.
Reluctant, to say the least, José Luis, is forced to accept his father-in-law’s post, becoming the new executioner. The dread can be read on him from this moment forward, yet he initially plots to step down before his first execution. To his misfortune, this is not how it works in Francoist Spain. Like it or not, José, the show must go on.
The film was condemned as Communist by some world leaders and was transgressive in its pointed satire towards Franco’s regime in Spain. Even as a foreigner in a wholly different age, it’s impossible not to see the bite that Berlanga’s masterpiece carries with it. While some of it doesn’t fully translate, the film’s treatment of death and the portrayal of the government are, without question, still impactful today. The film’s indictment of capital punishment is rivaled by very few works of cinema, literature, or other artforms. Berlanga’s legacy is built a great death on how he treated death in his art and this film is exhibit numero uno.
The film is, in and of itself, worthy of consideration by any cinephile or history buff; however, the Criterion edition is so full of extras that the experience is taken to a much higher level. A documentary piece on Berlanga and an insightful interview with Pedro Almodóvar (director of many acclaimed Spanish films including 2016’s Julieta, a selection for Best Foreign Language Film for the 89th Academy Awards, whom cites Berlanga as a central influence, alongside such diverse influences as John Waters, Andy Warhol, and Billy Wilder) are highlights. The new artwork alone makes the Criterion edition impressive. The 4K transfer of the film is gorgeous and the sound is fantastic. Overall, it’s a very strong release, which is (of course) unsurprising for Criterion.
You can grab a copy on Amazon or find it at most major retailers.
It is also available on Amazon Video on Demand, for those who can do without the bells and whistles and prefer to stream their films.